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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[September 5, 2001]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

You've Got Repression!

If you're a big fan of America Online, I apologize in advance. I'm going to pick on them. The most wondrous part of it all though, is that I can. I may get flamed by AOL fans, but no one will show up on my doorstep tomorrow asking me to accompany them to the offices of some shadowy government branch for questioning and "debriefing." Not only am I able to express my opinion, I'm able to publish it. Isn't that terrific?

A keen observer of the news need not search for very long to discover that this is not the case in many spots on the globe. More than a few countries today adore the idea of the trade that can be fostered by a burgeoning Internet economy, but are torn between the desire to allow free Web-based trade and risk that their citizens will have access to "dangerous" information. For the sake of example, I'm going to focus on the People's Republic of China.

Currently, consumer Internet usage in China is doubling every six months. The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reported that by the end of June 2001, 17 million Chinese citizens were online. Currently, all Web traffic in China is supposed to be routed through government-maintained servers, which check for information the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry deems dangerous, harmful or subversive. This includes foreign news sites, pornography, dissident political Web sites, anything related to Taiwan, Web sites that provide information on the forbidden spiritual movement Falun Gong and details about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, among many other topics. The government maintains an official agency to pursue what it considers crimes on the Internet (publishing subversive information) and rule-breakers are actively pursued and jailed on a regular basis.

Under rules set down by Chinese Internet regulation laws that went into effect in the autumn of 2000, the ban on "subversive" material covered chat rooms and instant messaging. Service providers are required to act as nannies over the content of chats, ensuring that nothing perceived as contrary to the Communist Party's official line be passed through their gates. Have you been waiting for AOL to come back into the picture? Can you guess what my thread is?

Who is the largest ISP on the planet? Who broadly declares that they invented instant messaging? Who is the largest provider of IM in the world? Last questionwho is itching to break into the lucrative Chinese ISP market?

The suspense, rampant as it was, is over. In June of this year, AOL Time Warner forged a deal with the largest manufacturer of PCs in China, Legend Holdings Ltd. (the company owns 39 percent of the PC market in China). Though AOL cannot yet begin offering its services in mainland China (that must wait until China is approved to join the World Trade Organization), it has become clear that AOL is chomping at the bit to gain access to what could soon become the largest online community in the world.

So what happens when AOL begins offering services in China and the Ministry of Information Industry begins demanding the ISP monitor chat rooms and report the names and e-mail addresses of dissidents? AOL's answer, according to the Washington Post, was a memo that read, "It is our policy to abide by the laws of the countries in which we offer services. We will work with government officials and our partner in China to understand and comply with the regulations that govern online services in China."

Uh-huh. Including complying with rules that require that AOL report anyone who sends a "dangerous" message, such as, for instance, "The Chinese government killed many hundreds of people in Tiananmen Square in 1989"? Were I a Chinese journalist working in China right now, typing that phrase would earn me a visit from the shadowy men who specialize in handing out attitude adjustments. Additionally, AOL has a number of alliances with entertainment companies and the retailers that sell movies, CDs and books. Considering that the Chinese minister of propaganda has referred to Western films as "spiritual pollution," it's unclear how the company intends to keep its traditional channels and receive the stamp of approval from propagandists at the same time.

Indicating plans to follow AOL down the garden path that is the Chinese consumer market, many U.S.-based companies have insisted that their mere presence in countries with poor human rights records will bring Western values to human rights-challenged countries. Rightjust like keeping a picture of a police officer in my pocket would keep me from jaywalking.

Predictably, many human rights groups have already stepped forward to challenge AOL Time Warner on what its policy will be in terms of complying with Chinese government restrictions on ISPs. AOL International's chairman, Michael Lynton, reported to the Washington Post that, "issues about privacy have to be looked at in a local context."

I don't know about anyone else, but I hear that as, "we'll rat anyone out to anyone as long as we can make a buck." AOL has recently admitted that it is seeing profits flattening out as the U.S. market becomes saturated. In my opinion, the company loses business when Internet users gain confidence surfing the net without AOL's hand-holding interface and depart for the greener pastures of cheaper ISPs with fewer restrictions.

I'm pleased to see that some groups have already stepped forward to prod large companies such as AOL to acquire a social conscience in a big hurry. Human rights groups have warned AOL, along with other companies seeking to acquire ISP licenses from China, that they intend to remain vigilant.

On the other side of the coin from AOL, a few organizations and individuals have made it their crusade to supply software and proxy servers to Chinese citizens who find Web sites they wish to access blocked by Chinese government firewalls. A group called Voice of America, a multimedia broadcast service funded by the U.S. government, is planning to implement a software called Triangle Boy which will fool Chinese firewalls into allowing Web surfers to access banned sites. Voice of America broadcasts over 900 hours of news and other programs each week to an audience estimated to be 91 million strong worldwide. Predictably, many countries block citizens' access to Voice of America programming, which acts as a kind of multimedia, global version of Radio Free Europe. Triangle Boy was developed by a company called Safe Web, Inc.

I'll admit, in case you were unable to figure it out by now, that I am not a big fan of AOL. I find the company's services expensive, limiting and anti-competitive, and I have never liked their omnipresent hard-sell marketing tactics. They do, however, have a right to whichever marketing tactics they choose. What I don't believe they have the right to do is make money at the expense of freedom of speech.

I would ultimately like to think the U.S. government will take some responsibility in ensuring that certain standards are upheld when U.S.-based companies deal with countries that have less-than-stellar human rights records.

Did I mention that Secretary of State Colin Powell is a former member of AOL's board of directors?

The author may be flamed at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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